Explain Your Sports, Part 2: Womens Bodybuilding Divisions

Continued from part 1, where I explain the STRENGTH sports in which I compete.

So that brings us to what we are really here to talk about, honestly: bodybuilding.
This upcoming weekend I will be competing in the inaugural INBF SoCal Uproar in San Diego. I’m super excited because my friends Edna and Jermaine are the show promoters, and as my way of supporting them, despite the fact that this show does not yet have any pro division offerings, I registered to compete in a different division, a brand new to me division! Based on the feedback by the Mayhem judges, I will be competing in the women’s bodybuilding division. Until now, I have only ever competed in the figure division, and that is what my pro card says on it.


So this is where people get confused.

Allow me to help you sort this out a bit.

Bodybuilding is a sport in which absurdly lean and hungry athletes get on stage wearing next to nothing but a spray tan and a glued on bathing suit. There are no feats of strength performed on contest day- all of the lifting is done in advance. Weeks, and sometimes months, of dieting have preceded show day. This contest is not about what we can do, it’s about showing off the physical manifestation of the work we have done in the days, months, weeks, and years prior. We flex, in prescribed poses, and are compared subjectively against one another by a panel of judges. There are specific criteria that the judges use that vary by division (and by federation, as well), but there is no black and white, like in powerlifting, where you do or you don’t complete the lift- there is no guarantee of success. Your success depends both on what you have done up to show day to prepare yourself, and on who else shows up. Sometimes, you can show up at 90% of your best and take a trophy home. Sometimes, you can show up with the best physique you’ve ever had in your life and not place top 5, because other, better physiques showed up that day. Sometimes you just weren’t what the judges were looking for.


Because not all bodies are the same, not all bodies fit the same judging criteria. That’s why bodybuilding (blanket term for the sport) is split up into several divisions, each with their own judging criteria. I will only be going over the women’s divisions here, and will largely be following the criteria set out by the federation in which I do most of my competing, the WNBF. Feeding into the WNBF is the INBF amateur league. In order to get to the WNBF as a pro, you have to win an amateur show against a predetermined number of other competitors (which is to say, you don’t get a pro card just for beating one other person, it has to be a WIN, not a win by default). We’ve talked about this before.

There are other federations, lots of them actually- the largest federation being the NPC (amateur league) and IFBB (pro league), as well as WBFF. NPC shows are every-freaking-where, like every freaking weekend. I choose to compete in the WNBF because they have the strictest drug testing standards, and they’ve truly made a home for me among their family, though I will occasionally wander off and do a show with another drug tested federation such as IPE, NGA, or OCB as well. At this point, I no longer compete in the untested federations, such as the NPC, just as a personal choice.


This is arguably the most subjective division in a subjective sport. It is a relatively new division, and was designed to have a low barrier to entry. It is the least muscular, “softest” division. You don’t need to have been lifting for years and years, having packed on pounds of muscle to do well in this division (though I will concede that many bikini competitors have been lifting for a number of years and purposely maintain their physique to bikini standards- I do not mean to minimize the work that these lovelies put in or make this division seem entry level, though for many, it is the start of their bodybuilding journey.) This is the most “marketable,” or “beauty pageant-eque” of the women’s divisions. Athletes who do well in this division are not overly muscled or excessively lean.

This majestic unicorn is Madison. She is an IPE Bikini Pro and donut enthusiast.

Bikini competitors wear a two piece suit, similar in shape to a beach bikini, often in a bright color, with lots of gems on it that normally fall in a scatter pattern, as opposed to having a distinct design. Suits often have decorative bottom side and top neck connectors that look like jewelry, as opposed to beachwear string ties. Heels- yes, the clear Lucite ones- are also a part of the uniform. Hair is most often worn long and down, and many competitors get extensions to add length and volume.


Athletes are judged on “fitness and balance,” which is to say, she looks like she lifts, but again, she’s not a beast. In this division, full glutes and defined (but not capped) shoulders tend to be the hallmark of a successful athlete. Athletes are also judged on their overall appearance, which includes stage presentation such as posing and walk (you’d be shocked how many women get on stage and clomp around like a circus animal in their heels- it takes a lot of practice to get it right!), as well as their hair, stage tan, makeup, and how well their suit cut and color compliments their physique.

Posing in this division involves (in my opinion), and lot of… extra moving? Like arm waving and toe tapping and over-the-shoulder-peeking. I’m not a bikini competitor and the posing doesn’t mesh well with my personality, but it clearly is a whole choreographed thing. I would describe it as… fluid? Graceful? Glamourous. Even a bit flirtatious. It’s not about showing muscularity and flexing hard, it’s about presenting a beautiful package, as they say.



This is the division where I have spent all of my stage time so far. It is a more muscular, leaner division, that maintains some aspects of bikini (such as wearing jewelry and heels on stage) but has a focus more on the muscle and less on the pageantry.

Athletes wear a two piece suit, but rather than being beach bikini style, the top criss-crosses across the lower back and attaches to the back of the bottom piece. The embellishment on figure suits is much bolder, with defined patterns and more heavily jeweled motifs. The bottom straps sit much higher up on the hips than a person would ever wear a beach bikini to elongate the leg line.


Posing is much stricter in figure division. There are four comparison poses- front, rear, and each side, and poses are designed to show off the musculature and conditioning (leanness) of a physique. Figure athletes also have a small bit of time on stage to themselves, called a T-walk, where they have the judges eyes all to themselves, and can showcase a few variations on poses at different points on the stage.

Judging criteria focuses on symmetry, or a competitor’s overall balance and proportion- not only left to right, but top to bottom as well. Judges also look for leanness- there should be separation in the quads and delts, and visible ab definition. Figure division places a lot of emphasis on the V-taper, which means you should be shaped like a Dorito, with wide shoulders and big delts and lats, tapering down into a tiny waist.


Lastly, stage presentation is graded, again including the hair, makeup, tan, suit, and T-walk which is not necessarily choreographed and the competitor does not choose her own music. Bodybuilding is, after all, a performance, on a stage.


This is the original division- and for a long, long time, the only division in bodybuilding. Figure came later, to present a more “feminine” side of the sport, and other divisions were added on even more recently to bring down the barrier to entry in the sport. You can read some of the history of women’s bodybuilding here.

Bodybuilding division is where the sport as a whole derived it’s name. It is the most muscular, leanest division. It also has the most comparison poses, as well as a choreographed individual stage routine set to music. This is the only division where there are both men’s and women’s categories. Women wear a suit in figure style, though usually with far less embellishment, or even no embellishment. There is no jewelry worn, and feet are bare on stage- no heels. In this division, the entire focus is to be on the athlete’s physique.

WNBF World Champion Bodybuilder Lisa Lum


In the untested federations, women’s bodybuilding has been largely phased out, and the natural federations are working hard to promote and keep this division alive. My friend Edna earned her bodybuilding pro card just three weeks ago, and I hope to do the same!


In the natural bodybuilding world, there is a division that falls between figure and bodybuilding called FitBody. I honestly don’t know much about it, and it is definitely the smallest division at any show I’ve been to. Competitors wear figure suits and heels, and go through figure comparisons, with a few additional poses borrowed from bodybuilding… but in heels. They are not supposed to be quite as densely muscular as in bodybuilding division. In untested federations (NPC/IFBB) there is a similar division called women’s physique division (WPD) that falls between figure and bodybuilding, but competitors wear no shoes, like in bodybuilding.
Some contests and federations have other divisions as well. In natural bodybuilding, an uncommon division that I’ve seen trying to make a comeback is mixed couples, where you and a partner compete as a team. In the NPC/IFBB, there is a fitness division that incorporates a gymnastic-like routine that is incredible to watch. Recently, a new division was added in the NPC as well called wellness. And I haven’t even touched the WBFF divisions that include wings and costumes and shit.

ANYHOW all of this is to say that I’m going to try a new division this weekend- I’m going to toss my heels aside for a weekend and get on stage as a bodybuilder. I’ve been working my ass off learning the posing, and with the help of my friend Jermaine, dust off my ability to remember and perform choreography for my individual routine. I’m excited and nervous to give this a try, having decided only three weeks ago to do it at all, and having had to learn all of the posing in that short amount of time… as well as undertaking back to back peak weeks, seeing as I have a pro figure show on the very next Saturday!

Please pardon my 4am check-in frog face, but here’s a little bit of what I’ve been working on! if you’ve been paying attention in my Instagram story, you’ve probably seen a few of these poses dropped as I learned them over the last three weeks- and a few people messaged me correctly guessing that I’d be giving bodybuilding a try- what can I say, I’m not so good at keeping secrets when I’m excited, and this has me all hyped up!

3 thoughts on “Explain Your Sports, Part 2: Womens Bodybuilding Divisions

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